Wednesday, May 07, 2008

se fine

I turned in my last paper for the year Monday morning!!! It was a good feeling. Since then I've been hanging out with my boys, baking muffins, making granola, cooking two kinds of soup in order to get rid of ingredients we've had floating around and neither one have had energy to do anything with recently, for obvious reasons.

Now there are a mountain of dishes in the sink, so I figured this was a good time to write a blog entry... =)

I promised to write about some of the things I learned doing my finals, so I'll start with the first paper I turned in, which was the one on Thekla. She's the heroine of the "Acts of Paul & Thekla" (2nd century) and the "Life & Miracles of Thekla" (5th century). I wrote about her before so if you want the background info on her story you can read my previous post first. (By the way, I think the British way to spell her name is Thekla and the American way is Thecla, but I like it with a "k" because it looks better and it's more similar to the Greek, which doesn't really have a "c.") I wrote this paper for my class "Medieval Women Leaders of the Church," even though Thekla is not exactly Medieval. She had a huge cult following in the early Middle Ages, however, and even into the late Middle Ages many nuns found inspiration in her story.

One thing that stood out to me when doing this research is the fact that so many of the "apocryphal" Christian texts had women as main characters, and these works were seen as edifying and useful for centuries, but they were not canonized and so we don't think of them as important. It seems like most Christians assume that since there aren't really women as main characters in biblical books, that just must have been how the culture was--but that isn't true. There is a book called the "Acts of Xanthippe, Polyxena and Rebecca," fairly similar to "Acts of Paul & Thekla," where these three female disciples of Paul are highlighted. And in other apocryphal Acts such as the "Acts of John" and "Acts of Peter" women play prominent roles. These were mainly written in the second and third centuries, so when people got around to formalizing the biblical canon in the fourth and fifth centuries they threw these out largely because they were not written in the apostolic age.

But unfortunately we miss out on having any strong female characters in the New Testament. We have female characters, but not particularly strong or important ones.

Now, don't get me wrong--just because "Acts of Paul & Thekla" or other apocryphal Acts have female characters doesn't mean those women were shown in a particularly flattering light for modern feminist standards, but at least they were there--at least they spoke and had a role and did miracles and acted in similar ways to the male apostles. In the Bible we don't have any examples like that.

Even scholars who aren't feminists think "Acts of Paul & Thekla" is "orthodox" in terms of its theological content, so I see no harm in suggesting that people read it. Thekla was commissioned by Paul to go and spread the gospel, to preach and to baptize, and although this was probably not the words of Paul it was the words of some male in the second century, so not everyone had a problem with women in ministry early on.

Some suggest that the Pastoral Epistles (written at the end of the first century or beginning of the second century) were written as a reaction to stories like Thekla. Although her story was probably not written down yet, it was likely in circulation in the oral tradition. The Pastorals (especially Timothy) emphasize women's submission and a return to the Greco-Roman household code in order to make Christianity respectable to the Hellenistic culture.

This is a problem with which we still struggle: how do we make our religions palatable to the world around us without losing our message and our focus? Christianity was never meant to be a respectable faith: it was meant to be life-changing, and people would be brought in by recognition of the power of the love of God in Christ, working through those who profess Christ. It was meant to be a faith where people were persecuted because they stood up against the evil systems of the world, like Thekla did.

How do we find that balance between being "respectable" enough to not just throw our lives away, and passionately living out our faith no matter what the cost? How do we make sure we're canonizing Theklas instead of compromising our principles?


Ralph Beebe said...

Thanks, Cherice. This opens, or partially opens, a new door for me. I have found it easy to defend the sexism in the NT on the basis of the culture around. But you are saying that the culture was not as sexist as I have presumed. I do think I am partially right, though. "Why wasn't Jesus born a female?" "Well, clearly she wouldn't have been accepted as a leader in that culture, so God had to send him to earth as a man." I suspect that is still a valid argument, but when you have time (maybe after you come home in a couple of weeks) you can let me know. Love you!

Gr. Ralph

Robin M. said...

I'm all for blogwriting over dishwashing. Keep up the good work.

I didn't know much about Thekla, so this is all good to read. What this reminds me of is that we shouldn't use the examples of the second century to justify misogyny in the twenty-first.

Anonymous said...

So, it occurs to me that the really lazy way I can find out if there is information available on the subject is to con someone into checking out how much damage incorporating Neo-platonist thought into "church" theology in the second century and beyond has done. Their views on women is only a part of the damage I think, but a major one. Having put a bee in your bonnet, I shall slink silently offstage.

In His Love,